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TECH TALK

This issue: Firearms • Part II
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Minnesota History Interpreter • December 1998
MINNESOTA
HISTORICAL
SOCIETY
Introduction
Once a condition survey of the firearms collection
has been completed, following the suggestions in Part
I, the treatment of objects that have been identified in
the highest priority category for stabilization can
begin. The following article describes the tools and
techniques for proper disassembly and outlines
procedures for cleaning and stabilization.
Cautions
Let me emphasize that this article is a
general guide, not a substitute for the actual
advice of a qualified professional conservator. I
would also like to emphasize that older historic
firearm types, such as matchlocks and wheel
locks, should not be disassembled; many of
these firearms do not have easily removable
screws and pins. Note, too, that the procedures
described in this article should not be used with
highly ornamented firearms or those with
stocks of exotic materials such as ivory and
horn.
Extreme care and caution must be applied in
the storage and handling of the solvents and
chemicals recommended for the cleaning process.
To accommodate the longest barrels, the fume
hood should be at least 48 inches wide. If a fume
hood is not available, an exhaust fan should be
used as a minimal precaution. If engineering
controls are non-existent or inadequate, then
respirators must be provided and used
according to the updated federal Occupational
Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) respirator
standard (29 CFR 1910.134). Both acetone and
toluene are strong organic solvents, so do not
breathe in their vapors. Keep skin exposure to
all solvents to a minimum.
Smoking must not be permitted in the
laboratory area
while firearms, or any
other objects, are
being treated.
Materials Safety Data
Sheets (MSDS) must
be on file for all
chemicals being used.
These are available from the distributor and
manufacturer. The Minnesota Pollution Control
Agency (MPCA) and your local county PCA can be
consulted for further details on the safe handling and
storage of flammable solvents.
Disassembly and Treatment Procedures
The methods and procedures described below
have been developed through experience with the
treatment of 18th- and 19th-century American and
European-made flintlock and percussion weapons,
and are applicable to both short- and long-arms.
Figure 1 (above) will help the non-conservator
understand the terms used throughout this article that
refer to the object components. Refer to the reference
books listed in the bibliography for details on specific
firearm models.
Conservation Treatments of Firearms
by Paul Storch
Continued on p. 4
Editor’s note:
TECH TALK is a bimonthly column offering
technical assistance on management,
preservation and conservation matters that
affect historical societies and museums of all
sizes and interests. Comments and suggestions
for future topics are welcome.
Figure 1 (right)
Schematic
drawings of
generalized
firearms and
components.
(Not drawn to
scale.)
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4 Minnesota History Interpreter • December 1998
TECH TALK • Firearms: Part II
MINNESOTA
HISTORICAL
SOCIETY Disassembly Procedure: Removing the Barrel
from the Stock and Disassembling the Lock
1) Removal of stock pins and wedges: Gently tap
out pins or wedges with a rawhide or wooden mallet
and soft metal punch. Figure 2 shows a disassembled
smooth-bore percussion pistol with the applicable
tools. Look for evidence of previous removal to
determine to which side of the stock the punch
should be applied.
2) Removal of tang screws: Figure 3 (right)
demonstrates the correct way to hold the
gunsmithing screwdriver. Use a screwdriver head that
fits both the length and width of the screw head.
3) Removal of barrel from the stock: Gently pull
the hammer back to the half-cock position to free it
from the pan or nipple. Turn the weapon over and,
starting at the breech end, gently pull the stock
upward while grasping the barrel as the barrel rests
on the table. If the barrel is heavily corroded, it may
adhere to the wood. A steady pressure will usually
free it from the stock.
4) Removal of lock from the stock: Remove the
side screw. Grasp the lock by the hammer and the
front part of the lockplate and gently pull the lock
straight out. Look for previous mends of the lock
mortise area and try not to pull these out; however, if
they do come out, save them for later repair.
5) Disassembly of the lock: Apply the mainspring
vise to the mainspring. Make certain that the hammer
is in the fired position, since this releases the tension
on the springs. Let down the hammer slowly by
carefully pressing on the sear, which is the lever near
the rear of the lock. Remove the remaining parts.
6) Removal of the trigger guard and assembly
from the stock: When the trigger guard and
trigger assembly are held in with pins, do not
remove them. If the trigger assembly is a double
trigger (set type) mechanism, remove the large
spring first. If other stock furniture is pinned to
the stock, do not remove it. Butt plates can
sometimes be removed and cleaned, if the screws
holding them in turn easily. I would also
discourage you from removing barrel plugs and
percussion nipples from museum firearms,
because the probability of damaging a unique
object is so high.
Re-assembly
Re-assembly should proceed in the reverse
order of disassembly. The mainspring on the
lock should be replaced after the other lock parts
are in place. Place the spring in its proper
position, then compress it with the vise and slip
the upper lip into the slot. Make certain it is
properly seated, then remove the vise.
Continued on p. 5
Figure 2, above. A disassembled percussion-lock, muzzle-loading “Brown Bess”-
type pistol, showing the components and standard tools used in the conservation
treatment of firearms.
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Figure 3, right.
This shows the
correct way to
remove a screw
from a historic
firearm.
Apply pressure
perpendicularly
to the screwhead
while turning it.
It is important
to maintain
this rigid
perpendicular
pressure to
avoid stripping
the screwhead.
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Minnesota History Interpreter • December 1998
TECH TALK • Firearms: Part II
MINNESOTA
HISTORICAL
SOCIETY
Metal Cleaning
Degreasing: It is important that the following
operation take place under a fume hood or with other
adequate ventilation, using the proper gloves. Using
cotton wool and cotton swabs, apply Stoddard’s
Solvent, or a similar mineral spirits-type solvent, to
the metal parts. This should also remove surface dirt
and some corrosion
products.
Removing ferrous and
non-ferrous corrosion: Apply
a petroleum-based rust and
lubrication oil such as WD-
40 or the equivalent. Do not
use an oil with silicones or
other “permanent”
lubricant added. Apply with
cotton to both the patinated
and unpatinated
components. A mild steel
brush and very fine steel
wool (0000 grade and finer)
may be gently used on
heavily corroded,
unpatinated parts.
Note: Brass brushes and
scrapers, contrary to
common gunsmithing
recommendations, should
not be used on exterior
surfaces; brass is soft enough to leave a yellow
metallic residue on the steel surfaces. Be careful to
remove only the corrosion and not the patination
layer. Avoid touching engraved and stamped areas
with abrasive tools. Do not clean brass and silver parts
until they shine. Remove the cleaning oil with acetone
or mineral spirits; do not leave the oil on the parts as a
coating. Following these steps may not remove all the
corrosion, but it is good for first-level cleaning and
stabilization. A conservator should be consulted for
more difficult corrosion problems.
Cleaning barrel interiors: While holding the
barrel over a solvent-resistant container, pour mineral
spirits into the muzzle end. Discard dirty solvent in
an approved container; do not pour down the drain.
Secure the barrel in padded vises and clean it, using a
brush of the proper caliber on the cleaning rod. Rinse
out the barrel with solvent after each brushing, until
the cotton patch comes out relatively clean. Finally,
apply a liberal amount of rust inhibiting grease (called
“RIG,” sulfonated petroleum jelly) down the entire
length of the barrel on a clean patch.
Coating metal parts: The best coatings to use are
the Acryloid series of acrylic resins (Rohm and Haas;
available from conservation supply distributors).
Acryloid B-48N was formulated specifically for use
on clean metal surfaces. Incralac is a similar polymer
to B-48N, with the addition of a copper corrosion
inhibitor. Both of these are soluble in toluene and
xylene. Use a good quality natural bristle brush.
Allow the parts to dry thoroughly before re-assembly.
Reapply a small amount of coating to the screw heads
after re-assembly. Coat the stock furniture before
cleaning the stock.
Re-label the firearm: Refer to Part I of this article
for a discussion of proper labeling procedures.
Cleaning the Wood
Removal of dirt and corrosion from the interior of
the stock: Use Stoddards or mineral spirits on swabs.
Do not soak the wood. Consult a conservator if insect
damage or major breaks are found.
Cleaning the exterior: Use a mild soap, such as
Murphy’s Oil or Vulpex (available from conservation
supply distributors) in distilled or de-ionized water at
a dilution of 2-3 percent. Do not soak the wood. Wipe
with a damp cloth after the soap application, then dry
with a clean cloth. Consult a conservator if the finish
is delaminating, water spotted, or needs other more
involved treatment beyond simple cleaning.
Protective coating: Apply a good quality paste
wax (without silicones) to the exterior surfaces of the
wood. Petroleum-based microcrystalline waxes such
Continued on p. 6
Figure 4a,
right, above:
Fire-damaged
forestock. The
wood is friable
and fragile.
Figure 4b,
right, below:
Forestock after
treatment by
the author with
consolidants
and epoxy
putty.
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Minnesota History Interpreter • December 1998
MINNESOTA
HISTORICAL
SOCIETY
TECH TALK • Firearms: Part II
as Renaissance brand (available from archival and
conservation supply distributors) or natural carnauba
wax brands such as Butchers or Trewax are
acceptable. The carnauba waxes are in turpentine.
Follow the manufacturers application instructions
carefully. Avoid waxing checkered areas of the wrist
and forestock grip because wax makes it difficult to
buff indentations and will dry to a light color, which
is very visible.
Other Levels of Treatments
It is important to know what should not be done
to a historic firearm, and when the problem excedes
your skills and resources. Firearms that have been
damaged by fire and/or water should be examined by
a conservator prior to disassembly and cleaning. The
use of epoxies or any other fillers or adhesives must
be avoided except when applied by an experienced
conservator and their use is warranted by
the condition of the object. (See figures 4a and 4b.)
The procedures described above will clean and
stabilize historic firearms with the minimum
alteration of the original materials.
Do not attempt to “rebuild” parts, make
replacement parts, or drastically alter the nature of the
object by polishing or refinishing. There are cases
when those operations may be performed, but other
issues must be taken into account before they are
applied. (See figures 5a and 5b.)
Always document each step of your treatment
carefully with both photographs and written records.
Note any special problems that arise during the
treatment of the object. If followed carefully, these
procedures should preserve both the historical and
aesthetic value of a museum firearms collection.
Remember: Proper storage of firearms is also an
essential part of preventive conservation. The firearms
should be protected from dust and should be checked
regularly for the recurrence of interior or exterior
corrosion. Refer to Part I of this article for a more
complete discussion of this topic.
FURTHER READING
The current Track of the Wolf, Inc. catalog has an
extensive offering of books on the history and
manufacture of historic firearms, and is also a good
resource on the parts of the mechanisms:
Edition 14-D, 1998-2000; Track of the Wolf, Inc.; P.O.
Box 6, Osseo, MN 55369-0006
McCann, Michael, “Respirators,” in Art Hazards
News, Vol. 22, No. 3, 1998, New York.
Fadala, S. and D. Storey, Black Powder Hobby
Gunsmithing, Northbrook, Ill., DBI Books, Inc.,
1994.
Prytulak, G., “Threaded Fasteners in Metal Artifacts,”
CCI Technical Bulletin No. 17, Canadian
Conservation Institute, Ottawa, Canada, 1997.
Storch, P. S., “Care and Handling of Firearms Part II:
Disassembly and Cleaning,” in Conservation
Notes No. 9, August 1984, Texas Memorial
Museum, University of Texas at Austin, Texas.
White, P. R., “The Care and Preservation of
Firearms,” CCI Technical Bulletin No. 16,
Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa,
Canada, 1995.
Paul Storch has been objects conservator in the
Daniels Objects Conservation Laboratory at the
Minnesota Historical Society since January 1991.
He is a frequent contributor to The Interpreter.
Phone: 651/297-5774; e-mail: paul.storch@mnhs.org
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Figure 5a, above: Exterior of percussion lock after re-browning and
replacement of the hammer and hammer screw. Treatment by the author; the
original tumbler was damaged.
Figure 5b, immediately above: Interior view of lock, showing replacement
tumbler and assembly modification.